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Sartaneja (see on map)
We crossed the border between Mexico and Belize with no problems, as opposed to a German couple travelling in the same bus, which were deceived by the Mexican immigration and paid U.S. $ 40 without being handed any receipts. A little later we arrived to Corazal, the first bigger city in Belize, a small country of just over 300,000 inhabitants, settled in the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala. Belize was a colony of the United Kingdom and that is why English is the official language, although many people speak Spanish and Creole, a mixture of English, Spanish and some African languages, because in Belize there are many descendants of black slaves, keeping it a very African culture: on the street and the bus listening to music, African rhythms and music of black Americans, many Cubans had tangled hair and looked rasta style and smoked marijuana, many other boys wore baggy pants, sagging rap style. .. However, grocery stores and hostels were run mostly by Asians (also quite common in Africa) that offered the products at prices quite high, which is why we saw in the bus from Mexico that many Belizeans carried loaded bags with food. In Corazal, many houses were built of wood, some of them off the ground to prevent moisture, but most were in work, due to the numerous hurricanes that have hit the coast of Belize. I also drew attention to the many homes that had clothes in the balconies, extended in the dusty streets.
We slept in a good but expensive hostal and the next day we took a couple of buses to Sartaneja, a small town lost in the North-East of Belize that we had been recommended to visit, mainly because there was a hostel run by a couple from Switzerland Canada offering good accommodation at very affordable prices. During the bus ride we were surprised to see so many men and women wearing clothes similar to Europeans two centuries ago. They seemed Amish, and indeed, they were Mennonites (similar to the Amish we visited in the U.S.). On the bus there was a very nice Salvadoran friend of a Mennonite with whom he began to joke, explaining that he had a Belizean mistress, but that they did not allow Belizeans to approach their wives. Then he explained that most of the Mennonites in Belize come from Mexico and Canada, and Europe originally, preserving the German language community. After that, several Belizeans on the bus said that the Mennonites were good neighbours and basically they were very peaceful, but I sensed that they were not accepted at all, due to their voluntary isolation.
Sarteneja proved to be a very quiet place, incredibly quiet. The second day I met a Canadian in front of the dock and said ´Sartaneja is the best place in Belize,´ he looked puzzled and said ´Have you noticed that the houses have no walls? It is quiet and peaceful here, in addition the sea water and the streets are clean. ´ Yes, Sartaneja was lovely by the calm that was felt, but not much more. It had no beach, but I swam a couple of days in the ´port´ where had anchored a few sailing boats and one day I dived into a small cenote or lake surrounded by mangroves where in theory there were crocodiles. On the other hand, the hostel where we stayed also helped to increase the attractiveness of the town, basically a good atmosphere and good friends.
Belize is the country of Central America with less density of population, it is not surprising therefore that there is enough land put on sale and many foreigners willing to buy it. In the hostel in Sartaneja we met various ecologically minded young people who had the dream of owning an organic farm, growing vegetables and tending animals such as chickens or goats. So I kept my thoughts to myself, but I found it ironic that to fulfil the ecological dreams, these guys have to buy a few acres of virgin forest, which after they had to cut and then grow. There was even an Australian who had planned to hold a remote part of a natural park in the country to start his organic farm. I thought this ecological irony was due to a much bigger problem: overpopulation. We are currently nearly 7000 million people living on planet earth and if everyone wants to eat organic products there may not be enough arable land in the world and should cut down a lot more rainforest. For the biological culture to be able to nurture the whole population, we should rather reduce the number of people on the planet or drastically change our diet (basically become vegetarians). Until that happens, surely the best policy is to seek the most out of available land, even at the cost of using modified seeds, fertilizers and insecticides.
With the exception of our stay in Sartaneja, all travelers we met told us that Belize was quite expensive compared to Mexico or Guatemala, especially the archaeological visits or tourism in general. That was why, despite what we had been recommended, we had to rule out a visit to the Caribbean islands of Belize and headed directly to Cayo - St. Ignatius, a destination inside the country, near the border with Guatemala.
We arrived with a typical Belizean bus along with three Americans who were intending to buy land near Cayo, or further south to create an organic farm guesthouse. The Americans wanted to rent a car in Cayo and we had been encouraged to share the cost together with them and visit various tourist attractions in the area. But at the moment of truth, the rental car was much more expensive than we thought and I just visited, with other boys in the hostel where we stayed, a beautiful stretch of river where we bathed. The rest of the day and a half we did almost nothing aside from talking to other travellers and to connect to the Internet. Thus, considering that the hotel was not very economical, most tourist activities were extremely expensive and were virtually no contact with the Belizean culture, we finally decided to end our week in Belize and go to Guatemala.
Flores (see on map)
The woman on the border of Guatemala said:
- You have to pay 12Quetzals (2 €)
I did not know if this tax was official or not, but we had too much experience across borders in the world and so I said:
- I Did not know there was this entry fee, can you give me a receipt?
The woman police reacted quickly and said:
- If you want a receipt you will have to go pay the fee to the bank in the centre of the town.
I thought for a moment and continued:
- I do not understand why you cannot give me a receipt ...
But the police women stopped me and said angrily:
- Do not insist! You will not pay anything.
After that, I warned two Finns who were in the same bus that they should not pay the 20Q and I was told later, she was cursing the Spanish guy for a while.
From the border we took a local bus to Flores, a beautiful village nestled on a peninsula of Lake Peten Itza. Flores perhaps deserved a day of sightseeing, but the main reason for our stay in the village was its proximity to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, 2000 years old, which I visited the day after arriving in Guatemala. I took a tourist minibus in the 5 am to get to Tikal at opening time at 6, and was a good hit; it was great walking through the jungle surrounded by mysterious sounds and lonely temples, rising proud among the greenery. During the first 3 hours I spent walking around the various temples and climbing the steep stairs to the top of some, I realized that these were the best Mayan ruins visited so far, better than those of Palenque. But a couple of hours later, when the sun began to stun and roads and temples were filled with large groups of tourists, Tikal lost much of its charm and I decided to get back to Flores, although there were still some places to explore.
The city of Coban was halfway to the following tourist attractions in southern Guatemala, and we had chosen it as a resting or technical stop, although the bus driver warned us that the city could be very dangerous. Coban was out of the tourist route, but luckily a German who worked as a volunteer in Coban offered to accommodate us through Couchsurfing. Thought it would be a great way to interact with people who knew the situation in Guatemala but in the evening we spent with Herman, he was too tired from work, preferring to relax with friends smoking marijuana. Herman´s friends were nice, but too young and too eager to recreate as to maintain a deep conversation. However, during a casual conversation, one of the guys said he was the son of a pharmacist and in short time they had thief´s who had robbed twice his father´s pharmacy. People knew who the robbers were, who had carried out several robberies in the area, and between the various shopkeepers of the district they hired two hit men to kill the thieves. Asked how much was paid a hit man in Guatemala, the guy told me that the collection was done in the neighbourhood and was only 50Quetzals (5euros) per store, for a hit man takes very little, only about $ 100 per request. We also talked a little with Kata, a German girl who worked with Herman, who explained a little about the work they did, educating children that come from waste picking environment, living scavenging and living on the city dump.
Antigua Guatemala (see on map)
Antigua is probably one of the best towns in America, probably the prettiest visited so far. So much so, that Alexandra did not want to move from there, for six days, when I was beginning to feel like visiting some other towns in the area. While Antigua was founded by Spanish in a zone of frequent earthquakes, the city prospered as the capital of Guatemala during the Century 17 and 18, until the year 1773 when an earthquake destroyed it. The town was evacuated and founded a new capital where it is now the city of Guatemala, but by the mid-19th century the old city began to be rebuilt to maintain the colonial character of the beginning, which is preserved until today, when most of its buildings, churches and cathedrals have been rebuilt following the original plans. Normally, most resort towns maintain a beautiful and historic central plaza arranged but on the outside, they have imposing modern buildings. In contrast, in Antigua, all the town retained the colonial atmosphere, with cobbled streets, houses with a single level with robust walls painted in bright colours, numerous stone buildings with arches and wooden portals covering sidewalks or patios and churches within which the natives worship the saints offering beautiful mosaics made with vegetables or coloured powder. At the end of the village, the lofty volcano ´Water´ will be visible most of the time, putting the final touches to this wonderful town.
One day while we were in Antigua, I visited with a group, the Pacaya volcano, which exploded a little over a year ago, in May 27, 2010, so that I could not climb to the summit, although the vast expanse of solidified lava, in some places still smouldering, it was still impressive. Anyway, what amazed us most in Antigua was the fourth Sunday of Lent, a school procession of Holy Week, which is impressive in Antigua. There were only two or three guilds, but one of them carried a huge platform to represent the torment of Jesus, about 20 meters long, which was transported by 30 people per side plus a few more in the center. With a solemn atmosphere, the procession moved to the rhythm of drums and trumpets, on the side of many Roman guards dressed in between the thick smoke of incense and over carpets of flowers and herbs that people had created earlier. I have not been in Seville during Semana Santa, but this experience in Antigua made me want to go once the trip ends.
It was difficult to drag Alexandra out of Antigua, but in the end I managed to convince her to go to Quetzaltenango, a city that Guatemalans called Xela, where a man from couch surfing had offered to host us. Philip is an American (U.S.) that has been living for two years in Guatemala, a country he loved and where he planned to live the rest of his life, perhaps opening a business. The day after arriving, Felipe took us to walk in Xela, but even if it is a city visited by foreigners (mainly to learn Spanish), the centre did not have any appeal. Or maybe it had, but we were too enchanted by Antigua and now nothing could compare with it. Only slightly fascinated me the cemetery near the house of Felipe, with rectangular niches painted with different colours each, which were repainted on the day of all saints.
In any case, our stay in Xela was interesting because of the conversations with Philip and some of his friends, with whom we made a good dinner the second night. During dinner I talked to a Guatemalan who said the government was very popular, for example delivering food and money to the poor for nothing, without active policies to generate employment, and that was bad for the country´s future, but Opposition parties do not want to propose changes to these policies because they would not be voted. Then he complained that there is enough violence in Guatemala caused by the groups of Salvatrucha and Mara 18, which make their living by extorting businesses in the capital, but they have now started to blackmail neighbours also, sending thugs to collect money regularly. He said that the police cannot do anything and that the problem was out of control. He later expressed a saying ´the devil comes in the details´ and added that violence was normal in the country, because kids play fighting and insulting ... and he put another example, describing a tradition at the universities of Guatemala, the Huelga de Dolores ( The strike of Pains), during which students have their faces masked to extort money from businesses and make money to celebrate, and if they do not pay them they throw them oil painting on the facade. So no wonder the extortion, violence and deaths suffered by the society, being believed that more people die now than during the civil war that lasted 36 years. But this should not be entirely accurate, because during the civil war, a cruel government fought against leftist groups, more than 200,000 people died, a genocide that was denounced by Rigoberta Menchu, who won the Nobel prize for peace. I asked what had happened to Guatemalan Rigoberta and he said she had submitted to the last election but got very few votes, mainly because the Indians did not consider her as a representative, she also received much criticism, perhaps because she is indigenous and a women and because, many believe she has become rich as a businesswoman and has forgotten the homeless.
One of the friends of Philip who was at dinner, an American, offered to take us by car to our next destination, Lake Atitlan. Along the way he explained a few tricks to avoid being attacked in the city buses of Guatemala, for example, one should not sit at the window, because someone can sit at your side with a pistol and quietly ask all the money. He also explained that we should not take the red line buses, because the Mara gang demanded money from drivers to pass through the sector 18, but they did not have even money to live and it was not too long ago that they had killed 300 drivers in one year. Then he told us two stories, one that had happened to a friend who was forced to take all the money of his visa card and then, with a good vibe was invited to dine at McDonalds with his money. The second case was more sad, he told us that a worker in his company was killed six years ago, perhaps out of revenge or maybe it was just a random killing, which young people have to execute if they want to enter a gang.
Lake Atitlan is one of the main attractions of Guatemala but we were told, that lately it was not as visited because its waters were contaminated with bacteria and not recommended to swim in it. We stayed in Panajachel, the main town on the shore of the lake, a town without any interest if not for the dozens of stores selling souvenirs on the main street, adding a little colour to the foggy days we had. It was a shame, because the lake is famous for its views of the three volcanoes on the other side of the water and we could not see the silhouettes until the last day. It was much more interesting my visit on Sunday when I went to Chichicastenango changing bus 3 times. Chichicastenango is famous for its Sunday market and really was very flamboyant, like Cuetzalan market in Mexico, with many indigenous selling crafts plus coloured vegetables and many other products for the home.
Apart from Sunday, we stayed 4 days more in Panajachel without any extraordinary activity and basically I stayed at the hotel working on my third book, a far more ambitious one than the other two and that, instead of talking about the travel , will explaining how you can be happy without free will. In fact, I had no plans to begin writing this new book until I got home after one year, after visiting the rest of America. But after pondering well I thought this was the best option. On one hand I find it more economical to start writing while travelling, because in Catalonia I spend a lot more money paying the mortgage on the flat (now I have it rented) and the food, which is much more expensive. Moreover, recently both Alexandra and I feel more comfortable travelling less intensely and spend more days in each place, so I can take much longer to write. On the other hand, before I could hardly concentrate in different situations, hotel and activities changing every few days, but now I find it easy to sit anywhere, even a bus, and concentrate on writing.
Well, in Guatemala I have infrequently opened the computer in buses, not only because they are often too crowded and we have been warned of security problems, but mainly because it is still virtually impossible to keep the laptop on your lap, because the roads are too wavy and the drivers drive too fast and sudden. In fact, Alexandra wanted to stay an extra day in Panajachel because she had panic of the buses, and when we take a bus she holds my hand very strong all the time, and if at some point she could relaxed then it was just to say that the buses were like a roller coaster, but instead of having a closed circuit it was passing through an open circuit, with higher speeds, tight corners and most vertiginous cliffs.
We spent four days more in Antigua, relaxing before heading to the following countries. We ate frozen fruit with chocolate(pineapple, strawberries, mango ,banana...) a very inexpensive treat. I walked a little more through the wonderful town. We are excited by watching the first match Barça - Madrid, and were surprised by the passions aroused in Guatemala by the Spanish league with Barcelona fans balanced with the number of Real Madrid, unlike Mexico, where Barcelona fans were clearly more numerous. And we returned to enjoy another procession before Easter, which will be the next week. On the streets there were many more people than the previous two Sundays, and seeing that in the following processions there will be too many people, we are happy to have made the decision to march on Monday.
In the hotel there were more people and we had the opportunity to talk with some of them about our journeys. Responding to questions, I had to admit that, while wanting to continue finishing the tour, I had 50% of my mind anchored at home. This allowed me to concentrate on other projects not related to travel, like how to write the book of philosophy. But as a negative point, I realized that we were taking the trip much more quietly and inevitably the diary I write is affected, resulting in being less exciting, less adventures to tell. It was the need to risk less, which made us decide not to visit Salvador and Honduras, two countries which, as we had been warned, ´do not receive too many tourists for being still quite insecure´. So we bought a bus ticket directly to Nicaragua, hoping that nothing would happen to us across the two countries.
Leon (see on map)
We left Antigua in the morning with a minibus, heading towards the city of Guatemala, where he boarded an old bus towards Nicaragua. There were more passengers on the account and a few had to sit on plastic chairs placed between the other seats. Luckily we sat on regular seats, but have done a good scandal, because we were those who had paid the most for the ticket, $ 50 in Antigua agency, unlike the $ 25 that the rest paid. In any case, the bus stop in Guatemala City, that was so small and isolated than we would have never found it and we would have risked being attacked in the same time. At dusk we reached the border with El Salvador, where we had to pull out all the luggage on the bus on both sides of the border, to be inspected slightly by the police, and the same procedure we had to do four more times, to reach Honduras border at two in the morning and that of Nicaragua at 5. We were surprised that El Salvador seemed well and clean, where everything is bought with dollars. Perhaps it would have been nice if we had visited it. Honduras Instead it seemed much dirtier and remembering the stories of violence that we have heard, we reaffirm our conviction that we did well not to visit.
During the trip I spoke with a guy from Guatemala, who since age 12 had been part of the Mara 18, explaining that to qualify on had to kill someone in order to get tattooed the number 18 on any body part. Eventually, his gang partners said there was a boy from another gang in a nightclub, and he had to attack without exchanging a word. First he broke a bottle on the head and then buried it in the stomach three or four times. Luckily, ¨said the boy did not die, but still earned the right to be tattooed with the number 18. But after a month, when it came time to tattoo, he met a group of guys who went to church and decided to change his habits, leaving the Mara and become a preacher. He said the Mara did not cause too much trouble to leave, they saw that he had no intention of joining a rival gang. But he did had problems with rival gang at a later time when 7 thugs, friends and family of the boy who was attacked with a bottle and nearly killed a beat him badly and left several scars on his face. Another man from Nicaragua present in the conversation, told me he used to drink quite a lot and took drugs. As he recounted his story reminded me that 20 years ago when I had been in Nicaragua, I had met many men who got drunk with alcohol they drank from clear plastic bags to fall unconscious to the ground. Then the man explained that he had stopped drinking because of his faith in God that helped him change his life. There were two interesting conversations that made me conclude, despite my atheism and rejection of religion, faith in God and belonging to a religious group can greatly help people to lose some bad habits. Finally, I wondered how could these people escape their vicious cycle if in the future disappear all religions and people stopped believing in God.
It was twenty years ago since I had been in Leon, the city where we spent the first few days. The city had a most interesting colonial architecture like other cities and towns visited Nicaragua , however, no comparison with Antigua. Maybe that´s why we do not enjoy too much the city, also because it was very hot, but mostly because we still do not know or talk to local people (except for bus talks). Twenty years ago I worked in some agricultural cooperatives and NGOs, but now, few people respond to us through Couchsurfing, so we were obliged to stay in hostels full of tourists who were only interested in fun, but also kept some interesting conversations with some foreigners.
Surely, the most interesting of Leon was Easter, but by no means was as spectacular as the Sunday prior in Antigua. On Good Friday there was a small procession through all the streets of the city, with people sheltering from the vertical sun with umbrellas. But the appealing part was in the evening, when residents of a neighborhood in León adorned the streets with some of the biggest religious carpets made from sawdust, flour and other natural dyes. One of them was created by a local artist who for the first time decided to put a real person in the middle of the carpet depicting Jesus crucified and became the major attraction, especially when the procession had to walking on the works of art.